People open restaurants for a myriad of reasons: to present a cuisine close to their hearts, to create a community of clients for sharing good times, to make a buck. But all that matters to the customer is that the restaurant have something I call culinary intelligence. This is an understanding of how ingredients and preparation work perfectly together and how to structure a meal so the flavors echo and enhance each other.
This is precisely what's missing at Cafe Dacx, a new establishment on the corner where Northwest 23rd Place meets the busy traffic of Vaughn Street. There's a vague emphasis on Mediterranean flavors (especially ersatz Greek), and the main courses are "seafood plates" plus a handful of simple vegetarian items, such as a tofu-veggie stir fry ($9.95) and a tempeh and veggie sauté ($10.95) in "a classic Chinese sauce," whatever that means. But the Mediterranean is secondhand at best, and the entrees do not remotely resemble those at restaurants
specializing in seafood. You'll get more piscatory pleasure from reading The Old Man and the Sea than from any fish platter at the restaurant.
The place itself is sweet and unpretentious, with a pleasant neighborhood feel, and a young, cheerful clientele. A loyal community seems already in place. The single room is enticingly simple, with tones of pale blue and orange and a lot of earnestly engaging art, mostly childlike, primitive renditions of women's faces and bodies, in some cases resembling knock-offs of Oregon painter Gregory Grenon. The staff is warm and kind, if not terribly informative.
But if there's a concept here it's hodgepodge. What to make of an entree of halibut doused with bleu-cheese sauce ($17.95), a scoop of lumpy garlic mashed potatoes and then something called a "maple salad with yams" containing discs of the root vegetable. Why one needs two starches is beyond me; and as if this conglomeration were not bad enough, there's an accompaniment consisting of out-of-season tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini and a wedge of cantaloupe. Fish and cheese are inevitably wrong together, and while the halibut seemed fresh and firm, the strong veined cheese completely masked whatever delicacy might have been detected in the fish. An order of overcooked cod with coconut rice, garnished with strawberries, apples and melon, seems like a dish searching for an identity. Chile orange prawns ($14.95) fare better than the other marine creatures, getting a spicy treatment set off with spinach assembled around the plate, but an Athenian shrimp dish of feta-tomato cream sauce ($15.95) tastes pretty much like a mediocre casserole. Even ahi tuna ($18.95), that most wonderful of fish, here lacks the strong meaty taste this creature has at its best: its Asian treatment, consisting of a coriander crust and lots of wasabi paste, serves to cover the distinctive flavor. In addition, the tuna was served lukewarm, making everything about it disappointing.
The cafe seems to have better control of some of its appetizers. The best ones are nice openers indeed, giving little hint of what's to follow. The Brazilian black-bean soup (bowl $3.75) is a triumph: rich, hearty, beautifully spiced and chunked with lemon pulp that picks up the smoky aromas of the beans and renders back the citrus tones. When we asked for three spoons to facilitate tasting, the kitchen generously brought out three separate coffee cups of the soup. I also liked the smoked-salmon pizza ($8.95), cut into small wedges circling a mound of greens. The crust is cracker-thin and very crispy, and the capers and red onions play off nicely against the salty fish. But the fun ends there.
Something billed as a hot artichoke pâté ($7.25) turns out not to resemble a pâté whatsoever, but a kind of cream-cheese dip you might expect at a wedding shower in Duluth. Cafe Dacx employs pita crisps or tortilla crust in almost all their appetizers, and their prawn "torza" ($9.95) is no exception. A sort of tortilla-based mini-pizza, it varies only slightly from the pizza on the menu, except that brie and mozzarella are melted over the shrimp and pesto, while sun-dried tomatoes punctuate the dish. I'm sure they could have thought of further additions, but they had to stop somewhere.
There's a terrific dessert of chocolate espresso mousse, vibrant and intensely rich, with plenty of excellent whipped cream. A lemon mousse is less special, the texture a tad grainy, though flecks of fresh lemon lend it sparkle. Chocolate toffee coffee cake and a chocolate ganache are workmanlike.
I simply can't understand what makes a cook think that oysters and mashed potatoes go together, or mashed potatoes and yams. The menu reads like a collection of the cook's favorite ingredients brought together with little rhyme or reason. I wish that someone in the cafe would go back to the drawing board and start from scratch. For the present, this is a place with decent intentions but not enough of a vision.
1937 NW 23rd Place 274-4004
11:30 am-3 pm Wednesday- Friday, 5-10 pm Monday- Saturday. Credit cards accepted. Children welcome. $$ Moderate.
: Brazilian black-bean soup, smoked-salmon pizza, chocolate espresso mousse
: Pleasant, colorful dining room